Bringing Indonesia Closer to Home

When the stage lights come up, the auditorium is enveloped in glowing warmth. The bright lights reflect off tuned metal bowls, gongs, and xylophones. When the musicians begin to play, western ears, used to the artificially even intervals of equal-tempered tuning, bask in the sound of intervals that hew to naturally occurring overtones. Massive gongs play notes that seem to come right up from the ground while flutes and stringed instruments soar as though in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.  The crack of drums punctuates the musical patterns and a vocalist begins to perform the elegant melodies of the Sundanese music of Indonesia. And that’s just in the first few minutes of a concert by the University Gamelan. By the end of the evening, you find that you have taken a journey from music that has its roots deep in the Indonesian past to today’s pop Sunda, a wildly successful style of music that melds traditional Indonesian music with modern pop styles. This convergence of past and present is hardly coincidental according to Andrew Weintraub, Professor of music and Director of the University Gamelan.

"‘Traditional’ and ‘modern’ are two sides of the same coin. Gamelan is not a museum piece that symbolizes an ancient civilization of royal courts and kingdoms. Gamelan lives and breathes in the present. Similarly, the sound, lyrics, instruments, and gestures of Pop Sunda have deep roots in Sundanese history and ways of being in the world.”

Creating a concert with this kind of musical and historical scope is a process that begins well in advance. Twice weekly rehearsals throughout the year prepare students enrolled in the gamelan course for the unique opportunity to be mentored by master Indonesian musicians. Guest artists from Indonesia arrive two weeks before the concerts to provide members of the Gamelan with private instruction, give lecture-demonstrations to hundreds of students in the world music courses, and participate in several performances.

This year’s guest artists-in-residence are vocalists Rika Rafika and virtuoso drummer Suherlan. Rafika is an award-winning vocalist who sings both traditional music and pop Sunda. She has 10 albums to her credit already and shows no signs of slowing down. Suherlan is a virtuoso drummer who has been performing with Rafika since 2005. Together, they bring a rich history of artistic collaboration to share with the members of the University Gamelan and their audience.

Those first two weeks of April will be an intense period of rehearsal and performance for guest artists and ensembles alike. Along with the Gamelan’s final performances of the semester on the evenings of April 12th and 13th, they will perform at Children’s Hospital on April 8th.

 The main events though are on Friday and Saturday night when the University Gamelan gives its biggest performances of the year. The first half of the program will feature gamelan and other traditional instruments with Rafika singing in a traditional style.

On the second half of the program, the musicians transform into a fusion band of Western and Sundanese instruments. The band will include guitar, bass, keyboard, saxophone, and Sundanese drums.

It’s a dramatic example of how Indonesians continue to cherish their traditional musical forms while engaging modern styles in ways that are thoroughly invigorating. It’s also a concrete example of how the University Gamelan provides Pitt and the surrounding communities with cultural experiences that broaden our understanding of the world through music. Transcending physical and cultural distances is clearly in the forefront of Weintraub’s mind as he prepares the ensemble.

“As the crow flies,” he reflects, “the distance between Pittsburgh and Jakarta is over 10,000 miles. It's easy to imagine ‘Indonesia’ as foreign, exotic, and alien. In concerts, however, music is a visceral experience felt by student performers and audiences alike.  The experience of Gamelan and Pop Sunda in Bellefield brings a faraway place like Indonesia a little closer to home.”

The University Gamelan performs on Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m. in Bellefield Hall Auditorium. Tickets are available online, by calling 412-624-play (7529), or at the Pitt Repertory Theatre Box Office Monday–Friday, 1–4 p.m.

Tickets in advance: general admission is $8.50; non-Pitt students and seniors are $5. At the door: general admission is $15; non-Pitt students and seniors are $10. Pitt students: free with valid ID.